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Unexpected lessons learned from an earthquake

While looking for updates about current crisis issues, an article about lessons learned from an earthquake popped up. The Worldchanging.com article meticulously lays out some of the key lessons taught by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The main ideas can be applied to overseas locations and can be useful to assist expats who find themselves in foreign locations that face earthquake threats.

  • Preparations often focus on individual preservation and downplay how to help others. This concept is introduced early in the article and is (unsurprisingly) accurate. Most public messages and training materials emphasize what people and their family members need to do in order to be personally prepared for a disaster. It is reasonable to add on to these preparations the logical next step of knowing how to help your neighbor or anyone who happens to be in harm’s way during a disaster event. The expat context for this lesson is to be able to communicate effectively so that you can ask for assistance, or offer it, during a crisis.
  • Collect your thoughts and then use the tools you have on hand. The article points out that the supplies the author had on hand were appropriate for the situation of an earthquake: “a logger’s first aid kit, a flashlight, the new Army bayonet (designed mainly as a tool), a folding shovel, and Vibram-soled boots.” The idea, it seems, is to think about how you can use the materials you put aside for yourself to benefit others who might be in more desperate need of assistance. Taking the time to have an emergency kit in your car, office and home is sound guidance – especially if you have recently relocated overseas and are still getting settled in. Consider the purchase or assembly of your emergency kits as a critical part of your move-in process.
  • People often survive in collapsed buildings and need to be found. Imagine the scenario where you found yourself trapped (a potentially horrifying situation) and heard someone walking around near the rubble but not saying anything. Is it a rescue worker? Another injured and confused person? Or perhaps it is a passerby who can render assistance merely by asking if anyone is trapped and then offering words of reassurance that help is on the way? The point is that when searching collapsed buildings it is imperative that you call out to see if anyone who is trapped can hear you and respond and then offer reassurance that the cries for help have been heard and will be answered. For expats, this reinforces the importance of knowing how to communicate through more than sign language or relying upon your native tongue as ‘good enough’ when living overseas. You should ask yourself if you would be able to communicate your need for assistance, or understand someone else’s pleas, in the local language.
  • Fire is a primary factor in the aftermath of an earthquake. Since the ground is no longer moving, the collapse of buildings moves into second place behind the threat of fires. Broken gas lines, downed electrical wires and a variety of fire-causing situations makes it likely that you will need to be prepared for handling a fire in order to save yourself or render assistance to others. Here there is no distinction for expats or native residents.
  • Tools are always needed and should be scavenged, if necessary. The damage caused by an earthquake can be extreme and typically requires tools to cut through wood, metal or break stone. For expats living either temporarily or long-term overseas, this is a good reason to spend some time and resources acquiring critical tools (e.g., saws, crow bars, shovels, axes, etc.) and adding them to your household. Avoid being caught without the tools you would normally store in a home workshop or tool shed.
  • Communication between rescuers and those being rescued is critical. The article describes a desperate situation where rescue efforts are complicated by a raging fire that is consuming the building where people are trapped. The people being rescued might have been able to help the rescuers if the threat of fire had been mentioned. The lesson offered is that communication needs to be on both sides – between the injured and those rendering assistance – to increase the chances that every option is used to get everyone to safety.
  • Stress is a reality but have the initiative to begin working to help yourself and others. People have varying responses to stressful situations and can become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the chaos or destruction following an earthquake. It is at this point that people should begin looking for things to do and then dividing into impromptu teams in order to start dealing with the situation. The added challenge in an overseas scenario is remaining calm and still cooperating with people who may perceive you as “foreigner” or “outsider” and this can add to the stress of the moment. People can be fearful or angry about the situation and asking them to also handle dealing with people from outside of their “normal” community could make an angry outburst more likely. The key idea then is to remain calm, focus on offering assistance and thinking about leadership by example rather than by ordering people to take action.

The entire article is well worth reading and offers more context and details about how people, as both victims of an earthquake and volunteers in the aftermath, can be better prepared to help themselves and others.

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